By Nazarul Islam, Copy Edited by Vijaylakshmi Nadar, USA, TIO:
India’s Modi has drawn unusual attention to what he described—an endless topic of discussion among the people!
“When will this year go by?” He elaborated on this lament and correctly observed that barely “six-seven months ago, little did we know about the catastrophe that corona is, nor had one expected the fight to go on this long!” This is the official script of his latest (political ) radio talk show—‘Mann ki Baat’
And if this was not enough, there were other reasons to be overburdened —administratively and psychologically as well, at both the government and at the people’s levels. There have been two cyclones – Amphan in the east and Nisarga in the west – swarming locusts, intermittent low-intensity earthquakes creating fears of a major rupture on a fault surface somewhere.
And the last dimension of the problems dogging India, which is in no manner least in making citizens wonder when will it be time again to flip the page on the calendar, is certainly not the least: “Amidst all these, the country has had to deal with the designs of some of our neighbors,” the PM also remarked.
In this season of an epidemic of adversities, the sternest test in Modi’s prime ministerial innings beginning 2014, is undeniably the confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh. The prime minister and his advisers certainly failed to anticipate that Beijing would use the cover of the pandemic induced lockdown to press the accelerator on its expansionist desire in sections of the LAC where India is militarily disadvantaged. With the initiative out of its hand, New Delhi has little option but to choose a settlement on China’s terms or opt for a path of conflict that would have enormous collateral cost.
Over the last three months, since he ordered complete lockdown on March 24, Modi has reiterated on multiple occasions that “challenges are opportunities.” Despite the bravado on display and the articulation of hope that India will ‘attain newer goals, reach newer heights with all-new wings,’ Modi has yet to find either way out of the labyrinthian crisis, undoubtedly the most challenging in his political career, or display that he is fully in grip of the situation with a coherent strategy in place to tackle each of the crises he listed.
The ability or inability of the prime minister to resolve the current state of affairs with China in a manner that appears to leave India as the ‘gainer’, will be the principal factor in deciding if 2020 is flagged or not, in future, as the flexing point in his premiership. Coupled with his handling of the other lesser factor, the situation arising from Coronavirus, the nature of the resolution of the two challenges will determine if 2020 turns to be what 1962 was for Jawaharlal Nehru – a year that besides triggering health problems, undermined his standing as prime minister and left him as a pale shadow of his former self.
A few words about the Modi narrative on Covid-19. The prime minister had held that India has ‘done better’ than many other nations, by ‘timely’ lockdown and that the government has ‘sufficiently’ provided all-round assistance to migrants returning home besides already initiating ‘adequate’ steps to kick start business at all levels.
But, contrary to claims, unanimity prevails among independent experts and ordinary people alike, that the ‘worst’ is yet to come. Epidemiologists have warned that the number of new Covid-19 cases is likely to rise significantly higher than the current figure of almost 20,000 a day. Likewise, the number of fatalities is also set to rise appreciably from the present mark of approximately 16,500.
Added to this is suspicion that the number of active cases is much higher because of inadequate testing and opaque information network. The deadly pandemic has been an instance of a squandered opportunity of securing people’s faith in official figures. The same is the case in regard to figures doled out by the government, senior ministers, and even Modi regarding the extent and nature of aid and assistance provided to migrant laborers and steps being taken to restart the economy.
There is no evidence yet of erosion in people’s faith in Modi’s ability to extricate the people from the misery of decimated savings and joblessness leading to hunger amid fear of the dreaded coronavirus. But, belief in the ability of the system to provide relief is running low as the middle classes continue to receive termination letters or information of massive salary cuts by mail, keep being asked by their bosses in the office about what ‘more’ they can do besides their designated tasks while those in the unorganized sector, especially daily wage earners receive ‘no work’ slips.
The biggest worry for Modi is the damage to his image of a far-sighted administrator. From the time of the pandemic outbreak, the prime minister has failed to match up to his image. There is no knowing when this becomes a factor in the political and electoral choices of masses.
Insofar as the state of affairs with China is concerned, Modi faces a tougher task in warding off the possibility of 2020 shaping up into what 1962 was to Nehru. True, the prime minister has an advantage over his predecessor, whose memory has been at receiving end of Modi’s barbs incessantly, of the Chinese not occupying large tracts of land as in 1962. But the disadvantage is the no-nonsense Maximum Leader image he created for he is unable to live up to it.
People perpetually expect him to ‘talk tough’, given how the Ghar mein ghus kar mara (entered their territory to strike at them) idea that’s been peddled consistently since the so-named ‘Surgical Strikes’. The hitch, however, is that jingoism isn’t the Indian regime’s monopoly. In the Xi Jinping era, the Chinese political leadership has been equally consistent in pursuing hyper nationalistic tactics.
Post-2014, the notion of ‘victory’ has been essential to the construction of the idea of muscular nationalism led by a State that is anything but ‘soft’. But sadly, unless the script changes dramatically, Bollywood will not find an opportunity to make a film titled ‘Galwan!’ Since Modi was voted back to the office in May 2019, the government flexed muscles over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin. The decision to continue dialogue with Beijing amidst opacity over Chinese intrusion and Indian control or access to territories previously perceived on the Indian side of the LAC would strike at the root of the perception of Modi being a decisive and courageous leader.
But, in an attempt to give sense to people that the government has ‘struck’, the effort will be branch into other fronts – for instance, the ‘ban Chinese products’ campaign endorsed by Modi in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ and subsequently embarked on officially by the ban on 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, ShareIt, UC Browser. There is a distinct possibility of Modi being tempted to embark on several ‘sideshows’ like the ban to give a sense of ‘victory’ while he accepts a Chinese deal over Ladakh.
Clearly boxed, or in a Catch-22 situation, the prime minister is aware that not just his supporters, but even the global community is watching his next move. The next steps of Modi will have bearing on multiple issues ranging from his international stature to retaining the ‘aura’ of an unyielding nationalistic leader, especially where territorial matters are at stake, besides of course deciding—if 2020 will shape out to be the year he would like to forget!